Now that I’m moderately recovered from my determining the future of nearly 2000 high school students (power like that requires a bit of recovery time, you know), I can be reborn as a writer. I have a shiny new book to submit and a new one to write, both of which makes me very happy.

I’m still hammering out the kinks of my query letter and have begun the laborious task of lining up agents I think might be interested. I have several, many of whom gave me some very positive feedback on my last novel, on my list from the last time and I hope to add several new ones to that list as I get into the process. I’m looking forward to starting the submissions again with a new book–it’s like taking a new girlfriend out for the first time, all anxious to show her off–and am hopeful that I’ll gain representation this time around.

Meanwhile, I’m also looking forward to starting a new novel. I have the basic structure in my head and I’m curious to see where the characters lead me. As usual with my writing, I’m doing something completely unrelated to what I’ve done before–I won’t even consider thinking about sequels until I sell my first novel and even then I’m not too keen on the idea. I love reading series from several authors, but for now I prefer to move on to greener, more vivid pastures. In this case, that pasture will be Nashville, where a soldier of God trained to battle demons with a unique weapon will put everything he holds dear–his life, his job, even his soul–at risk for someone he knows is condemned. I have a really nice opening chapter in mind that I’ve kinda sorta begun and plans to jump head first into the ocean of urban fantasy sweeping the literary world. Maybe, if I’m lucky, that ocean won’t be dry when I jump in.

Also, speaking of wonderful urban fantasy, congratulations to my friend Jaye Wells on the release of her debut novel, Red-Headed Stepchild. If you want to read the kind of book I’d like to be talented enough to write and publish, pick up a copy (or five) at your local bookstore. It will give you something to read–repeatedly–until I get my own published. Visit her at http://jayewells.com/.

I finished scoring the last of my nearly 1900 GSP applications early this morning and will post more on them and a myriad of other topics as soon as I feel a little more human. I’ve had four hours of sleep each of the last two nights and, still recovering from a mystery malaise, I’m struggling to remain conscious, much less write a coherent post.

So, I’m taking off this evening, going to bed early, and will resume regular programming–writing, submissions, general hooptedoodle, etc.–tomorrow after work. ‘Til then,

I sometimes walk from my house to the coffee shop where my wife is working while finishing her Master’s. On the path I take, I pass the following street sign:

Um . . . yeah.

On another topic, I should finish my yearly task of scoring applications for the Kentucky Governor’s Scholars Program either today or tomorrow, allowing me to return to my regular writing and LJ schedule. I will certainly have a few more things to say about this years applications and will also begin chronicling the submission process for Cursed Blessings or whatever I decide to call it tomorrow.

So, if you have been patiently awaiting my return to regular blogging, you really need a hobby.

If you are a writer or have some ambition of one day becoming one, check out Wired for Books.

Back in the 80’s and 90’s, Don Swaim of CBS radio interviewed some of the greatest writers of the age and now, on this site, those interviews are available in their full 30-45 minute glory for anyone to download and enjoy. Now, you can hear authors like Isaac Asimov, Ian McKewan, Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams, Ray Bradbury, Joyce Carol Oates, Barbara Kingsolver and many others talk about their books and writing in general. I’ve been listening to them for several weeks now and have found the interviews to be a treasure trove of anecdotes and writing advice.

So, if you have written a book, plan to write a book, or have even read a book, go there. Now.

While I’m giving my eyes a brief moment to uncross after reading the first 600 or so Governor’s Scholars applications, I would like to point out trends I’m seeing so far. I’ve already addressed these in earlier posts, but for those of you who just tuned in, here are a few general comments, concerns, and complaints about the applications thus far, addressed to the next potential lot of Scholars:

–If you want to be included in a program that rewards the best and the brightest in the state, you may want to proofread your writing samples. Had one such person done so, I wouldn’t have busted up laughing today as she described her retired “1100 ton” racehorse. I’m sure she meant “pound”, but that’s not nearly as funny. At least I know why he’s retired.

–Applicants should first be required to look up the word “unique” and write the definition in their “Unique Activity” sample. If you are part of a church group of 100 people and everyone else is doing the same thing as you, that does not make you unique. It makes you tedious. If you want to talk about that, there is another section of the application where you can do so. Quit boring me with it. I do think all the wonderful things these students are doing are admirable, don’t get me wrong, but they should quit trying to impress me. Answer the prompt and I’ll be impressed.

–If I have to look up an acronym on the internet, I’m not only going to be less impressed by your achievement, I’m also going to be annoyed at having wasted my time when you didn’t read the instructions. Don’t assume that I know what the activities at your school are–I’m 32, living in Tennessee, and we didn’t have so many things to do back in the Dark Ages when I was a Scholar. Moreover, if you want me to be impressed by an honor or award, tell me something about it–how prestigious it is, how many people win per year, how hard you had to work to achieve it, anything. You might have come in 5th in your Regional Underwater Basketweaving Tournament, but I’m a skeptic and I’m going to assume that there were only 5 people competing unless you tell me otherwise.

–Focus on one thing in your Unique sample. I think it’s great that you can play the piano and you teach Sunday school and you volunteer at the retirement home. Really, I do. Then again, there are other places on your application to put that. I would rather read about your fascination with model trains or your embarrassing habit of getting the hiccups when you’re nervous or something similar, something that you alone, of everyone you know–everyone you’ve ever met–has experienced. Come on. Thrill me.

To show that I’m not just Mr. Negativity, I’ll throw out some possible things about myself that I might write about myself if asked to do the same task. The prompt asks for a “unique and personal activity (sic experience) that sets you apart from your peers”. So, here you are:

–I was at my wife’s first wedding, but I wasn’t the groom.
–I once slammed an armed robber face-first into a tile floor to prevent him from robbing my store or shooting anyone.
–I love the gothic soap opera “Dark Shadows” while most people my age or younger have never even heard of it.
–I’m in the planning stages of writing a musical about the life of Sir Elton John.
–I have listened to Stephen King’s On Writing at least 100 times.
–I proposed to my wife in the flower gardens at the Biltmore.
–I once tore my rotator cuff during a doubles tennis match and continued to play two more sets with no feeling whatsoever in my arm.
–I once drove from Indianapolis to Louisville without sitting down.

That’s a few just off the top of my head. I can honestly say that I don’t know of anyone else who has ever done any of these things. They may not be as impressive as playing the piano or leading worship at a church or coaching youth soccer, but I challenge anyone reading this to find someone who has done any of the things on this brief list. If you do, please email me at leesmiley@gmail.com.

And I’m really not expecting anyone to email me. Good luck, though.

Today, I received a rejection letter for Dead and Dying. It was one of the last two full manuscript requests I had pending and, after a follow-up note about it last week, was full of the agent’s apologies for not getting back to me sooner. No problem there. It doesn’t matter if the publishing industry is down in sales this year, an agent will always have an insurmountable amount of work, much of it with little or no return on the time invested, and I appreciate any time an agent gives me more than they realize.

Also, along with the apologies, were several remarks about the novel that almost made me forget she was saying no. Among them were:

“. . . you’re clearly a talented writer.”

and

“It’s rare that a book can make me tear up at the end, but I felt that
there was a great deal of warmth and skill in how you wrote these
characters, and yet you did so without crossing the line into
oversentimentality–at least in my opinion–and that’s rare to find in a
story about death.”

and

“Also, this is exactly the type of commercial-literary with speculative elements fiction that I love to read.”

and

“I do believe that you have strong storytelling ability and that your writing has commercial potential.”

The one negative she saw, enough to lead her to say no, was that she did not think she could sell it. Basically, if I’m reading correctly, my writing is good enough to be published, but the story just won’t have a place in the market.

Sigh.

There are two basic problems with this situation and, sadly, neither one is really within my means of fixing. First of all, the poor economy has affected everybody, publishing in particular, and this general sense of gloom and doom, accompanied by a plethora of job losses and cutbacks at major publishing houses has made this one of the most difficult times in modern history for new authors to break through the traditional way. Many people are turning to self-publishing, but I’m determined to do it the hard way. If I’m not good enough to get other people to pay me for my fiction, then I just won’t be published. It’s all or nothing.

The second problem is that, as I’ve said on here before, the author doesn’t really control the material–it’s the other way around. The writing is good enough, but the story just isn’t right and that, unfortunately, is the one thing I really don’t have much say in. I could go through the ideas I have backlogged in my head, looking for something I think will be most likely to stand out in the market, but if I don’t feel that spark of inspiration, that sense of urgency to dig the story out of my head and onto my computer, then my established strength–the quality of my writing–will drop and I’ll end up with the same result, but for opposite reasons. Besides, that kind of speculation is a big part of what got us in this economic crisis to begin with, so I’m not going to risk spending most of a year writing a story I can’t love. I guess I could do a Jason Mesnick and write a story, only to dump it before I start submitting . . . never mind.

So, what now? Well, I am still working to perfect my query letter, now even more important in light of the need to promote the novel’s marketability. I’ve received one rejection so far from a long shot who gave me positive feedback with Dead and Dying, but I’m still not ready to begin a full assault on the agenting community. I’ve read numerous posts saying that the number of query letters have, in some cases, doubled over the past few months. I guess that many people, facing job losses or unstable financial futures, are turning to writing as both a means of escapism and, they hope, an economic boon. I’m not worried about this uptick, though. After all, I’m clearly a talented writer with strong storytelling ability and I believe, without doubt, that my time is coming. No arrogance, just the certainty that I will eventually break through. If I was afraid of competition, no matter how fierce or daunting, I would never have tried to get published in the first place. I welcome the competition and look forward, by combining my little bit of talent with a lot of hard work, to winning.

This marks the 100th Hooptedoodle. If anyone read this, that might mean something. So, since it’s mostly just me talking to myself, recording for posterity, I pat myself on the back. Good job, self.

Now, moving right along.

I’ve begun the query process for the new book, now titled Cursed Blessings. Still not in love with that, but it will work for the time being as it gets across a bit of the story and sounds like a book title. That’s very important–how something sounds–and that importance stretches beyond just what we choose to call our stories.

Tonight, the local elementary school was hosting a “Read Across America” event where parents were invited to bring their kids for games, activities, and, of course, reading in the school library. There was also a movie playing in the gym, which seems a bit counterproductive, but . . . . My son, Nic, picked out a book on Wilma Rudolph, the Olympic track champion from the 1960 Games who overcame polio before achieving greatness. Nic is in kindergarten and is just learning to read, so I told him to read the title before I started telling the story. He struggled with it for a bit, then looked up at me and said, “But, Daddy, I can’t read yet.”

I said, “Do you know your letters?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know what sound they make?”

“Yes.” A little sarcastically.

“Okay, then,” I told him. “All you have to do is make the sounds and put them together. That’s all reading is.”

He read: “Wilma Rudolph”.

That’s really all there is to it. Sound. We can complicate it, as is the human way, all we want, can make it seem like the most difficult task in the world, but all there is to reading, or writing for that matter, is making sounds. The letters, the words, are nothing more than symbols we substitute for the sounds they make. My job, as a writer, is not to make a story that looks good, but one that sounds good. Authors like Cormac McCarthy, who deviate so far from the “proper” usage we are taught in school, thrive not because they are rebelling against the rigid structure of the language, but because what they write sounds good. If it sounds good, the images in our mind are clear and resonant. If writing sounds bad, it jags on our mental ear like a piano being dropped down a flight of stairs.

I have a newly-edited, shiny new novel to send on the agent-go-round. Instead of worrying about if my query letter is formatted properly or if my synopsis is the proper length, I plan on focusing on how it all sounds. When I read the query letter aloud, do I want to read the story I’m describing? If not, I need to retool the pitch. When I read the synopsis, does the novel sound like what I wrote and, more importantly, does it sound interesting? If not, again, I need to do more work. The same goes for the novel. Aside from the usual suspects involved in my editing–typos and passive voice and the like–the most numerous changes I make are perfect in the grammatical sense, but just don’t sound right when I reread them.

So, if there is anyone else reading this down the line, particularly someone with ambitions of writing, I recommend keeping it simple. Whatever you write, make sure it sounds good and people will read it.